Helping others is probably not a top priority for most American 12 year olds. But that's not the case with Ashlee Smith of Reno, Nevada, who's been making a difference in the lives of other children since she was just eight.
Several years ago, when firefighter Mark Smith returned home after battling a blaze in a neighboring community, he showed his family pictures he’d taken of burnt toys inside the destroyed houses. For his 8-year-old daughter Ashlee, the images brought back memories of the fire that had destroyed their home almost two years years before.
"I knew how the kids felt," she says. "I went to my Mom and told her what I wanted to do."
Ashlee decided to collect replacement toys for the young fire victims. Her mother wasn't sure it was a good idea.
"They just lost their houses. They don’t need toys. They need clothes or somewhere to stay or food or something like that," says Ericka Smith. "She said, ‘What’s the most important thing to kids?’"
So, with her mother’s support, Ashlee collected toys and delivered them to the fire’s young victims.
"Then she said, ‘OK what’s next?'" her mother recalls. "I was like, ‘What? What you mean? You want to keep doing this?’ She said, ‘Yep.’ She started calling everybody, calling the news stations, calling radio stations, and the response was amazing."
The response led to the creation of Ashlee’s Toy Closet in 2008. Ashlee says she makes sure that the toys kids receive from her nonprofit are not just any toys, but their favorite ones. She estimates that she's passed out more than 165,000 toys.
While helping victims of natural disasters is Ashlee’s primary goal, her Toy Closet is open to children coping with a crisis of any kind.
"I did some Internet searching and I that’s how I found Ashlee’s Closet," says LeeAnn Maynard of Ohio. Her sister's family had fallen on hard times after Maynard's sister was diagnosed with a terminal illness two years ago. At around Christmas time last year, a big box filled with toys and clothes arrived for Maynard’s five nieces and nephews - a gift from Ashlee’s Toy Closet.
"Their mother didn’t make it till Christmas," she says. "She actually passed away November the 23rd (2010). So Christmas was a very hard time for them. But when they did receive the package - it’s very hard to explain the expression on their faces - tears of joy. Although they wanted their mother, they were happy for what they got."
Ashlee's mother says her daughter’s toy donations have been delivered to nearby neighborhoods and shipped across the United States and abroad. After Haiti’s earthquake last year, she says, Ashlee went online to see how she could help. She got in touch with a Haitian woman who had run three orphanages.
"She lost her orphanages, but obviously she’s going to rebuild them," says Smith. "So Ashlee decided that she would help rebuild the orphanages first, then we will ship them toys. So from all over the country, we had bible study schools this summer sending us toys and donations and money."
Ashlee’s dedication to helping children has been recognized by several national organizations.
She received the Red Cross Youth Real Hero’s award, and the Kids Who Care award from the U.S. retail chain, Kohl’s. Last year, she was named one of Build a Bear Workshop Company’s Huggable Heroes. She has also appeared on local and national radio and TV shows.
Yet, Ashlee says what’s most rewarding is the wonderful feeling of knowing she can make a difference.